You Need To Watch 'Stoker' Before Seeing Rian Johnson's 'Knives Out'

(Welcome to Knives In, a series about the movies to watch before Rian Johnson's Knives Out arrives in theaters.)Put on your murder-solving hat, because /Film has given me jurisdiction to dive deep into one film a day in preparation for the release of Rian Johnson's Knives Out, which hits theaters this week (read our review here). Each film relates to Johnson's "whodunit" in its own unique way, and each picture should hopefully be viewed prior to patrons watching the new movie on the big screen.Today, we'll be discussing the 2013 film Stoker, and how the movie is a perfect companion piece to Johnson's modern day murder mystery.

A quaint birthday party is rudely interrupted by a death in the family. Name the movie – Stoker, or Knives Out? In short, both answers would be correct, as both director Park Chan-wook and Rian Johnson have crafted films which explore the idea of bereavement as a means to not necessarily growing older, but rather, morphing into a monster. In the midst of loss, one would expect a sort of coming together of kin, a call to action to sew up old wounds and let the water flow under the bridge. Sadly, as these two films show, when it comes to the passing of a loved one, more often than not, the only hatchet that gets buried is a sharp edge deep into the soft flesh of another person's skull.

In Knives Out, a wealthy, self-made author named Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) finishes up his eighty-fifth birthday by taking his own life in the privacy of his favorite game room, much to the dismay of his loving family. Harlan started out with a rusty smith corona and built himself into one of the best selling mystery writers of all time. Thirty languages, over eighty million copies sold, and yet, the children he brought into this world are greedy when they should be grateful. Cold and procedural when they should be forgiving and compassionate. Long faces all around when the detectives show up, a pretense in humility, a mask so convincing, it puts Harlan's decorative statues peppered throughout his study to shame. Like Anjelica Huston shedding her human ensemble once the coast in clear in the late and great Nicolas Roeg's The Witches, so, too, do the Thrombey children reveal their true selves once the reading of the will comes into question. Claws come out, mouths water, razor sharp crocodile tears smudging thick makeup divulging the heinous demon within.

Likewise, in director Park's tragically underrated 2013 film Stoker, the ugly reality of death is on full display. When India's (Mia Wasikowska) father (Dermot Mulroney) passes unexpectedly in a freak car accident, she finds herself not held by her friends and family, but instead, solo at the funeral, caught up in a whirlwind of rumors. Why was her father driving so far away that day? Why isn't her uncle wearing black? Why isn't her mother crying? Are two of her relatives now involved? These are the whispers that surround and engulf India, a rare bird coming out of her shell just as the nest she once knew unravels and burns all around her.

Much like the mainly single location of the Thrombey grounds in Knives Out, Director Park also likes stories where the plot is set in a confined space, turning the Stoker house into a small universe unto itself. Based largely on Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, Stoker is an elegant thriller with heavy noir vibes about the blossoming relationship between India and her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) in the wake of her father's passing, characterized by an unusual cadence to dialogue. Since losing her father, India finds that not only is she suddenly surrounded by ghouls, but that she, too, is turning into a monster. "This goes against an ordinary coming-of-age story" director Park once remarked in an interview about the film. "Rather than leaving her nest in search of a commendable, positive, beautiful set of values, India leaves as a devil in search for evolution, into being a complete evil incarnate. So in this respect, this is a completely subverted coming-of-age story".

India's Uncle Charlie, who she is now meeting for the very first time, is arguably already a creature of the night. For one, we never see him eat – Charlie even goes to the trouble of cooking dinner for India and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), and yet, doesn't take a bite of the meal himself. At school, when India is taunted by the local bully, Charlie seems to hear the disparaging discourse from all the way on the other side of school grounds, appearing suddenly like a watchful guardian. There's even a highly suggestive piano duet shared between India and Charlie wherein he seemingly vanishes into thin air, just as their seductive crescendo reaches its sultry climax.

Although it is never blatantly stated that Charlie is a vampire, as the title of the movie may hint, the lust for the kill and the power of his thrall are still very present. After the loss of her father, Charlie manages to tease out the same sinister shine in his darling niece India, imprinting his dangerous nature on a vulnerable girl in a state of flux like a sire changing a child of light into a heathen of darkness. Soon, India is lying to law officials, beating up boys, engaging in lewd behavior and even committing murder. Suddenly, the shy little girl who doesn't like to be touched is drawing blood and stealing rose tinted kisses, frightening her mother to the point where she asks, "India, who are you?" The truth is part of India died the day they put her father in the ground, and this frayed being is all that's left.

In a similar manner, it's all smiles at the Thrombey house while Dad is still alive. In fact, if you asked each member of the family where they were in the room when the gang sang happy birthday to the old man, they'd all argue they were the one setting the cake down on the table and telling Harlan to blow out the candles. However, once their cash cow has been sent out to pasture, the wolves swarm, each helpless lamb now turning on one another for the slaughter. Director Park may take a more direct approach when it comes to commentary on post mortem madness, but both he and director Johnson are dealing with some dark themes about death and the unexpected effect it can have on those left living.